We need the Blue-Red connector

Patrick was wrong to walk away from it

FOR A TRANSIT mobility system to work properly, it must meet a variety of metrics and objectives. One important objective goes without saying but is often either overlooked or taken for granted: busses and subways need to get people to or near places they want to go. Origin and destination decisions inform where transit stops and stations ought to be. They must be responsive to people’s needs and offer reliable and convenient connections so people can easily move throughout the system. The number and location of stops and stations are important, but so, too, is connectivity. Most people do not have the luck or luxury to have purely linear origins and destinations. Reflecting that reality, transit routes need to be aligned in ways that enable convenient and seamless movements through the transit system. Connectivity is the great virtue of world class transit systems, and London may be the gold standard for this, as anyone who has used the fabled Underground system knows how frequently its various lines intersect, making it relatively easy to navigate through that expansive city.

Given the critical importance of transit connectivity, it is disappointing, to say the least, that the Patrick Administration sought federal approval to walk away from a legal obligation to design the long-awaited connection between the MBTA Blue and Red Lines. The decision by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to seek EPA approval for dropping the state’s obligation to complete final design of the Blue/Red connector runs contrary to an era when improved transit mobility, social equity, and carbon emissions top most people’s list of urgent urban issues that require action and improvement.

The Blue Line offers a tremendous opportunity to improve transit access to and from Logan Airport. The redesigned Logan Airport Station could become the gateway to Logan. But the Blue Line is the shortest subway line on the system. Two critical expansions – extending the Blue Line to Lynn and connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line along Cambridge Street (from Bowdoin Station to Charles/MGH) – can improve that access for tens of thousands of people, both airport workers and travelers.

Today if you live near Central Square Cambridge and want to get to Logan by T you need to take the Red Line all the way to South Station and then transfer to the Silver Line. Both lines are at or near capacity. In fact, the enormous success of the Seaport Innovation District has quickly  placed such an overwhelming burden on the existing Silver Line service that finding ways to relieve the system of its current and anticipated capacity are critical to sustain the economic growth we all want and expect in that district.  A Blue/Red connector would offer that Central Square traveler an easier and quicker transfer with a direct shot to Logan Airport Station. Moreover it would provide transit access to Massachusetts General Hospital for thousands of people who currently have none. Citizens living in the North Shore area – including East Boston, Revere, and Lynn – lack good transit access to MGH because the last stop on the Blue Line is several blocks away at Bowdoin Station. That distance may not seem like a great deal to many people, but it becomes an insurmountable barrier to those who need MGH the most: the elderly, people with young children, and the infirm.

Over 50 letters of opposition to DEP’s request were filed with EPA. One of those was from former transportation secretary Fred Salvucci who reminded the EPA that the Blue/Red design requirement was an outgrowth of a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation to ensure compliance with federal Clean Air Act requirements. Salvucci cautioned that our auto-centric ways are re-introducing chronic traffic congestion to the region, writing: “The very outcome feared by EPA in 1990 is visibly occurring as congestion has become an everyday occurrence on the I- 93 northern approach to the city, the I-90 approach from the west to the city, the I-93 south approach to the city, and Ted Williams Tunnel access to Logan, yet the state continues to agree to dramatic new auto-oriented development at Logan, in the Seaport Innovation District, and most recently decided to support a casino in Everett that will further overwhelm the already congested I 93.”

As I have written in previous articles for CommonWealth, we cannot and should not throw away our enormous investment in the Central Artery Tunnel project by failing to address the urgent connected issues of traffic congestion and transit mobility. I have called for incremental and inexpensive approaches to resolving these issues while we develop consensus around a larger solution set. We should learn from the history of our own times that chronic traffic congestion leads to disinvestment and economic decline. One thing is certain: we should not make matters worse by walking away from existing obligations to improve transit connectivity. The decision to seek relief from the obligation to design the Blue/Red connector was an ill-advised attempt to abandon the necessary work of making our transit network responsive to current and future mobility needs.

I fully understand the difficulty of funding these projects. It is not a trivial matter and I know from personal experience that it is easier to call for projects from the outside; much more difficult to make things happen when you are in office and dealing with harsh and stubborn realities.  But creative thinking can be a powerful tool in the public sector toolbox. When I effectively killed the Silver Line Phase 3 project in 2009, it was not something I did with any joy or enthusiasm. That project was intended to connect the Silver Line 5 service from Dudley to Downtown Crossing with the Silver Line 1 and 2 services from South Station to the Seaport District. It obviously made a lot of sense to connect these systems, but at a price tag approaching $2.1 Billion, it was not possible for me to credibly continue to advance a project that could not and would not be funded.  Moreover, I was under intense pressure from the Federal Transit Administration to make an honest decision about SL Phase 3 or risk losing critical federal funding for other projects.

I needed to move away from Silver Line Phase 3 because it simply wasn’t realistic. Instead, I searched for an option that I could implement that would be meaningful and provide the critical missing link in the Silver Line chain. My Deputy Secretary for Economic Development, Peter O’Connor, suggested what became the answer: today’s SL 4 service connecting Dudley to South Station. The SL 4 service was a huge success from the day it opened, and we were able to provide the service with an all-in budget of about $1.5 million. I have often said that this is a prime example of “doing more with less” – and that is the spirit in which we need to be thinking about how to improve transit access to Logan and MGH, while also relieving the current system of the stresses on capacity that get played out every day as packed trains and unpleasant rides.

Let’s break out the solutions into short and long-term steps that can be taken to advance these goals.  First, design the Blue/Red connector and the expansion of the Blue Line to Lynn.  We can work on sorting out the funding for these projects, but we should at least have them designed and “on-the-shelf,” ready to move forward when the funding stars are in the right alignment. Second, build a bus rapid transit corridor and new Silver Line service connecting South Station to the Convention Center and Logan Airport. This bus rapid transit corridor can be quickly and affordably designed and built and it will provide immediate relief to the already congested Silver Line, offer improved transit mobility in the city’s most highly developed district, and provide additional access to Logan Airport. Third, begin the conversation that must take place to find net new transportation revenue from transportation sources – technology-driven approaches that will be fair, transparent, and robust. The new gubernatorial administration can take the bold move of moving away from the unpopular and unsustainable gas tax and moving toward all-electronic tolling and a tax based on vehicle miles traveled. I do not believe that such an initiative will fail on partisan or ideological grounds: people in states like Florida and Texas (not just California) embrace all-electronic tolling and dynamic pricing, and if they can do it so can Massachusetts.  If we dedicate peak-hour pricing revenues to transit, we will develop a new and robust source of revenue for the projects I have mentioned.

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In a world-class city such as Boston, it ought to be unacceptable not to have superior transit access to the region’s international airport and largest, most sought-after medical institution.  We can provide that access by dealing head-on with the expansion of the Blue Line to Lynn, connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line along Cambridge Street, and providing relief to the Silver Line (while also expanding access to Logan Airport) via bus rapid transit along Summer Street, connecting South Station to Logan separately from the SL1 and anticipated SL6 services. Designing the Blue Line expansion and Blue/Red connector, and building the Summer Street bus rapid transit corridor, would be good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for transit mobility. The time to act isn’t now; it was yesterday.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.